MOVIES

UW-Madison grad Phil Johnston isn't a wreck over Oscar hopes

2013-01-29T10:30:00Z UW-Madison grad Phil Johnston isn't a wreck over Oscar hopesBy ROB THOMAS | The Capital Times madison.com
January 29, 2013 10:30 am  • 

Madison movie fans watching the Oscars on Feb. 24 have a hometown favorite – that big guy in the overalls who likes to wreck stuff.

Well, "Wreck-It Ralph" doesn't have Madison ties per se. But the film, which is nominated for Best Animated Feature, was co-written by Neenah, Wisconsin native Phil Johnston, who graduated from UW-Madison.

"Wreck-It Ralph" will compete against "Brave," "Frankenweenie," "The Pirates: A Band of Misfits" and "ParaNorman" for the little gold guy. The movie, about a retro video game villain (John C. Reilly) who escapes his game looking for a fresh start, was a big box office hit last fall. And, perhaps surprisingly, it was a big critical hit as well, with reviewers praising the poignancy and unpredictability of its storyline.

Johnston told the Appleton Post-Crescent that he isn't sure if he or the film's other writer, Jennifer Lee, will be attending the Oscar awards ceremony in Los Angeles – that honor usually goes to the producers and directors of the nominated movies in the category.

Johnston seems to be taking the nomination in stride, telling the newspaper that as much of an honor as it is, what really makes him happy is that so many people have embraced the film.

“It’s thrilling and it’s surreal, to be associated with something like that," Johnston told the Post Crescent. "It’s something that’s going to hopefully live with families for generations, so you kind of dream of that kind of thing even more than being nominated for awards."

Johnston, who went on to work as a television meteorologist in Iowa after graduation, kept much closer to his Wisconsin ties on his first screenplay, "Cedar Rapids." That comedy followed two Wisconsin insurance salesmen (Ed Helms and Reilly again) on a weekend of debauchery at a convention at Iowa's second-largest metropolis.

In an interview with the Capital Times, "Cedar Rapids" director Miguel Arteta said he was really attracted to how Johnson was able to get big laughs out of his Midwestern characters while still showing them a lot of affection and respect.

"Phil Johnston is an exciting new voice," Arteta said. "You don't get writers like that every day. You could tell that this guy loved these people, and for a director, that's the main ingredient that you need to have."

Johnston's next projects include a spy comedy for Sacha Baron Cohen and the long-awaited film adaptation of the novel "A Confederacy of Dunces" with Zach Galifianakis.

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